• Dragon Dance Review Sony PSP

    Dragon Dance is the latest videogame variant of Mahjong Solitaire, a one-player, tile-based game that is itself a spin off from the four-player gambling game, Mahjong. Particularly popular in East Asia and America, Mahjong Solitaire rose to prominence through various computer versions that greatly sped up the game's time consuming setup. While it utilises all the same pieces as regular Mahjong, the game plays completely differently by removing the need for AI opponents, making the game far more suited to a single-player videogame experience. Pieces are set up in several layers in a number of different patterns and the goal of the game is to successfully remove pairs of identical pieces until all are gone. The trick being that it is only possible to remove certain tiles at any one time. If a tile can be slid to the left or right without disturbing any other pieces then it is fair game, otherwise it cannot be touched. It's with this in mind that the vertical layers of the pieces come into play with players having to carefully remove pairs in such an order that they don't box all their tiles in.

    It's like the card game Solitaire, albeit a deeper, more complex one; although, at its simplest level the basic game isn't that challenging. Completing each set of tiles is merely a case of applying the same simple process to search for pairs that free up the most new pieces that complement the tiles currently available to you. And, just like Solitaire, this is only interesting for so long. Where Dragon Dance has been clever is in the way that it has reinvigorated this traditional game with elements from popular puzzle titles like Zuma and Luxor, providing a far more complete and satisfying experience.

    Each stage features the kind of dragon seen in Asian Dragon or Lion dancing which works its way across the screen towards a gate which it will try to smash through. The player needs to remove all of their pieces before this happens, in addition to slowing down the dragon's progress by utilising the tiles that are lined along its back. When the player matches two tiles which appear on the dragon's back, this portion of the dragon disappears, effectively moving it backwards. Pairings can still be made for other pieces and there is no penalty for doing so, it just has no affect on the dragon's position. Thrown into the mix are a number of special tiles such as 'rewind', 'pause' and 'hint' pieces, and on the lower difficulty settings 'wildcard' tiles appear which can be matched with anything.
    There is also a second, more accessible mode, where instead of matching pairs of tiles, the player just selects one piece at a time. If it appears on the back of the dragon, this part of the dragon disappears as before; if not, the dragon will instead move forwards, toward the gate. This places the emphasis far more on keeping track on what is currently on the dragon's back and it forces the player to try and keep a more varied range of tiles available limit yourself to too small a variety and it may not be possible to match anything on the dragon at all. With the standard mode things can get so hectic that sometimes you find yourself just matching pairs without time to scan the dragon's set, hoping that some just happen to match, so it's gratifying to have a mode that not only provides an easier entry level for players, but also offers a genuinely alternative feel to the game beyond the difficulty differences.

    It's this simple combination of time and symbol constraints that gives Dragon Dance its focus and turns a rather dry set of game mechanics into something genuinely fresh and exciting. The dragon moves at a brisk pace and some levels feature a relatively short path for it to traverse, which not only means the dragon doesn't have far to travel but also that there's a limited number of symbols on its back, too. Later on, variations enter the fray, such as piles of tiles being separated on opposite sides of the screen, the dragon weaving its way between them, and levels that are set at night. Besides looking fantastic, draped in glowing Chinese lanterns, these require the player to work that little bit harder to decipher the symbols. Tile shuffles are also awarded to players when they reach various score boundaries which will let them rearrange the tiles currently on display. These need to be held back for just the right moment and can be used either to avoid the blocking situation when there are no moves left, which could have been horribly frustrating, or to save the player at the last minute when they genuinely can't identify any pairs in front of them.

    Like the best puzzle games, it continues to raise the tension level, but at no point does the game ever start throwing unfair situations at the player. The difficulty curve is gradual and measured, it sticks to that sweet spot where the player doesn't always win but when you lose, you never feel cheated. A huge number of stages are featured, which fall into several categories, such as a Buddhist temple, a secluded park, snow-covered rural villages, lava-filled cave sections and a tranquil pond area, among several others. Each of these features a number of variations using the same art assets. The graphical quality is of the highest order with incredibly detailed and colourful 2D artwork. Little details like the way the trees overhang the dragon and cast dappled shade on its body, or the way the fish glide slowly underneath the water really add to the ambience. The dragons themselves look fantastic, with large, detailed heads, wrapped in bright, vibrant colour schemes, and all the menu screens have had the same loving attention applied to them.

    The developers have done a fantastic job on the audio side of things, with music tracks that combine traditional oriental music with new-age-style relaxation albums. Without a doubt it's the fantastic visual and audio elements that really make this package stand out, way ahead of the other Mahjong releases out there. There's a whole variety of different tiles available to cater to those who might have trouble telling some of the Japanese symbols apart, and the game saves after every level, so it's very pick-up-and-play-friendly. On the whole, there's no real language barrier here there's very little English, but the menus are simple and easy to navigate and it doesn't take long to work out what each of the various options correlate to.

    There is a scoring system in place, with all manner of bonuses and combo systems there for those so inclined, but it's not really the focus of the game. The score doesn't get logged until the end of a play-through (roughly 6-7 hours) and when aggregated over that kind of time span your scores aren't going to improve that significantly, no matter how much you play. It is, however, still fiendishly compelling. It gets the feedback loop just right, with the audio cues and score popups, the constant rippling movement of the dragon in the background and the stunning, highly detailed completion screens pushing the player ever onwards. Not only is this a Mahjong game that isn't dull, but it's a downright great puzzle game in its own right.

    -Rich, detailed visuals.
    -Dragon mechanic reinvigorates Mahjong.
    -Relaxing, chilled music.
    -Lack of per level/stage scoreboards.

    Score: 8/10